The Marsh Lions: End Of An Era

December 7th, 2015

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Our feet had barely touched home on Kenyan soil last night when we heard the sad news of the poisoning of members of the Marsh Pride – the lions that we have followed since 1977 and were the stars of our book The Marsh Lions (1982 updated 2012) co-authord with Brian Jackman. Brian and his wife Annabelle joined us this past September for a safari to celebrate nearly forty years of lion watching in the Masai Mara with a week long stay at Governor’s Private Camp – and Elephant Pepper Camp in the Mara North Conservancy (MNC). MNC is the location of Fig Tree Ridge and Leopard Gorge where Chui the leopard roamed in the late 1970s and early 1980s – the same female leopard I wrote about in The Leopard’s Tale (1985 updated in 2013). Fig Tree Ridge was the site of a proposed tourist development a few years ago that we lobbied hard to stop given its importance as a breeding site for leopards.

We could have said ‘shocking news’ in regard to the fate of the Mash Pride – but there is nothing shocking anymore as to what is happening in the Masai Mara. Tens of thousands of cattle encroach in to the Reserve every night when visitors are safely out of sight – but when the likelihood of conflict with predators such as lions and hyenas is at its greatest. This makes no sense. The Masai Mara is after all a national reserve and of vital importance to the Masai, the nation and the international community. This sorry state of affairs is testimony to the appalling management of the Reserve, a situation that has existed for many, many years; certainly for at least as long as I have known the Masai Mara. Lets not forget the precipitous decline in the Mara’s black rhino population that saw it plummet from an estimated 150-200 in the 1960s to just 11 by 1983 (it has risen again to between 30 and 40).

Our base in the Mara is a stone cottage at Governor’s Camp, home to the glorious Musiara Marsh after which the Marsh Lions were named. The Marsh is the heart of the Marsh Pride’s dry season territory, while to the east the intermittent watercourse known as Bila Shaka is the traditional breeding site and resting place for the pride. But that all changed when the authorities decided to turn a blind eye to the incursion of cattle in to the reserve, forcing the lions to move out or risk death. The Marsh Pride have always been vulnerable due to their being a boundary pride – their territory spreads beyond the reserve boundary. This is particularly apparent in the wet season when Musiara Marsh (and Bila Shaka at times) becomes waterlogged and the lions move to higher ground to north and east. Each year we lose lions to poisoning or spearing by pastoralists – that was always part of life for the lions. But in the last few years the situation has escalated beyond all reason with the Marsh Pride becoming increasingly fragmented by the influx of cattle and herdsmen.

The BBC filmed the hugely popular TV series Big Cat Diary in Marsh Pride territory from 1996 to 2008. The foundation of the series was that we always knew that we could find lions, leopards and cheetahs in the area on a daily basis. The Marsh Pride were at the heart of the series – they virtually never let us down – along with the leopards Half-Tail, Zawadi (Shadow) and Bella – and the cheetahs Queen (Amber), Kike, Honey, Toto and Honey’s Boys. Today it would be impossible to film Big Cat Diary in the same location – how damming a fact is that. Each year Governor’s Camp outfitted a special tented camp for us along the Mara River just upstream from Main Camp. The impact of livestock is all to apparent; this year the Musiara area looked like a desert and each night you could see dozens of flickering torches as the cattle were driven in to the Reserve after dark. Huge herds of cattle would camp during the daytime along the boundary of the reserve waiting for the tourists to head in to camp. The deep tracks leading into the reserve are testament to that along with piles of cattle dung scattered deep inside it. And the Musiara area is not alone. Guides from other parts of the Mara have been talking about this situation for years. But nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

And what of the Marsh Pride. Earlier in the year a break-away group of young Marsh Pride females with young cubs were forced to cross the Mara River and set up home in the Kichwa Tembo area, while the oldest females – Bibi (17), Sienna (11) and Charm (11) – and their cubs increasingly avoided Bila Shaka and the Marsh, loitering at the fringes of their traditional territory, forced to encroach on neighbouring prides. They are often to be found up on Rhino Ridge or even down on to Paradise Plain or along the river. How many lions have died as a result of the latest incident is still unclear.

One reason that the Marsh Pride males such as Clawed and Romeo – and more recently Scarface and the Musketeers (four in all) – are able to remain as pride males for so many years – four years or more – is due to a decline in the number of young nomadic male lions to replace them. In the past it was not uncommon to see groups of five or six young nomadic males roaming the Musiara or Paradise area together. I have counted as many as nine traveling as a group. That was a sign of a healthy lion population with lots of dispersing sub-adults. In the past pride males often only managed a tenure of 2 years – sometimes less – before being forced out of their pride by younger or more powerful rivals. The scarcity of these nomadic males tends to make us believe that they are not surviving as well as in the past. That would fit with the kind of disturbance that lions are facing on a nightly basis in parts of the Mara from livestock and herdsmen. Lions are going to kill livestock if it comes within range – and of course they will sometimes kill livestock outside the reserve and must bear the consequences when they do. The only way to prevent this happening is if there is enough incentive to persuade the herdsmen that lions equate to tourists – and that means a financial return.

And that is the key point. Many Masai do not think of the Masai Mara Reserve as a source of income. The often feel that it is unfair that wildlife is allowed to share their pastures and sometimes kill their livestock but that they are not allowed to reciprocate by bringing livestock in to the Reserve during dry times. This is particularly the case given that the Masai have roamed these areas for hundreds of years, long before the area was given official protection. Understandably the Masai  claim the Mara as their own. The authorities urgently need to address this issue by ensuring that everyone benefits from tourism to the Mara in a truly tangible way. There will be no safe place for the Marsh Lions until the reserve authorities decide to address all of the issues that have been debated ever since I first came to live in the Mara in 1977 – namely: equitable distribution of revenue to the local community; a moratorium on any further tourism development in the reserve; an embargo on grazing of livestock inside the reserve. While adopting a rotational system of grazing in wildlife conservancies created from private land surrounding the reserve to address the issue of how to harmonize pastoralism with wildlife, allowing the wholesale influx of tens of thousands of cattle to encroach within the reserve each night is not an equitable solution.

What a miracle it would be if the demise of the Marsh Pride became the catalyst for serious dialogue and change as to how the Masai Mara is managed. The Governor of Narok County, the Honorable Samuel Ole Tunai, pledged to do just that when he called a Masai Mara Stakeholders Meeting in Nairobi in September 2015. I attended that meeting and was impressed by the number of people who made the effort to come along. Since then a small group of concerned individuals drawn from all walks of life have worked to support the Governor’s initiative. We can only hope that we are about to witness tangible steps towards fulfilling our expectations.

22 comments on “The Marsh Lions: End Of An Era

  1. StanCalin says:

    We lost Bibi today and its like I lost a part of me , hope drastic changes are coming for the Mara reserve management or everything will vanish along with the Marsh pride .

  2. […] a true inside perspective on what is happening please read Jonathan & Angela Scott‘s […]

  3. Gary Mortimer says:

    Lets hope you can generate some outrage about the entire situation, not just the fate of the Lions. Very sad news.

  4. SpsRs says:

    I would like to share this article on my own blog. Would you permit me to do this please?

  5. sheryl says:

    When I learned about the poisoning of the Marsh Pride last night, I was devastated and I had hoped that they would recover. I am so heartbroken to learn about Bibi and I know that the two of you must feel the same. She first came to my attention on BCD then I knew that I had to go on safari with you to meet these amazing big cats. I am so sorry for the loss of these beautiful animals and let us hope that something positive will result from this horrific tragedy.

  6. Bob Eveleigh says:

    When I first heard about this I was both angered and saddened. Apparently it was first reported on Sunday 6 December and arose from a cow’s carcass that had been deliberately poisoned – this is one of the ways that lions are killed if they are regarded as a nuisance but of course it affects so many other species who feed off the carcass, like vultures and hyenas. They also die and their remains are also devoured so the poison goes further into the food chain.

    The short sighted nature of this tragedy is that the Marsh Pride is a revenue earner for Kenya, as are the other big cats and animals roaming the plains – people specifically travel to the area to see them. Kenya needs all the revenue it can get from tourism because terrorism and other factors have severely affected the industry in recent years. The point has already been made that the Masai Mara is a national reserve and vital to the Maasai longer term; if the wildlife is driven out there is little reason to visit Kenya because a beach holiday on the coast is not as popular as it was due to security issues so their revenue stream will reduce even further.

    I too have noticed a reduction in nomadic male lions challenging for leadership of prides and at a time when many people were commenting on blogs about how powerful Notch and his boys were becoming, taking over pride after pride, it certainly signalled to me that there was something wrong. Not only was the gene pool not being replenished but the prides themselves were not being protected properly by resident male coalitions staying in one place until they too got kicked out after a couple of years and I wrote about it on this blog at the time. When we were in the Mara earlier this year we found it difficult to pin down which males were in charge of which prides and where they were. The Four Musketeers seemed to have things largely sewn up to the north east of the Talek River and the remnants of the once all-conquering Notch boys to the south east of the Talek. But that was because there was very little competition around and that confirmed that the lion population in the Mara has plummeted in recent years.

    Whilst I’ve not been following the Marsh Pride for as long as Jonathan I’ve been going out to the Mara for nearly 25 years. For some time I’ve not been able to figure out why the authorities have not got a grip on the situation and I simply don’t understand why they turn a blind eye. Perhaps I am being naive here.

    I am back in the Mara in January and was looking forward to catching up with Bibi because at 17 years of age I realised she was certainly in the twilight of a very eventful life and this could have been my last chance to see her. Unfortunately that is not to be. She was the last of the four powerful females in the Marsh Pride – Bibi, Red (Mamma Lugga), White Eye and Lispy – who all starred regularly in the Big Cat series. The first three of that quartet were almost certainly all killed by people, Lispy probably died from natural causes.

    Details of yesterday’s incident are still sketchy but I understand that Sienna, one of the current key females, is still missing and I know several people were looking for her. I hope she turns up fit and well. It won’t put things right but I also understand that three people have been arrested in connection with the poisoning.


  7. daosmo says:

    There are no words to express the sadness I feel. I also feel anger. The loss of the beautiful Marsh Pride big cats is almost too much to bear. And now learning about the loss of Bibi, I’m heartbroken. They deserved to live a full natural life in the wild. I am glad to hear there have been some arrests made after this tragedy. I don’t know the answer and the wildlife can’t speak up so we need to keep our voices heard….and pray. Thank you for all your hard work in wildlife conservation. I admire and support all that you and Angie do. I will be closely following your updates.

    Take care,

  8. Many thanks to everyone for their thoughts – it really is a bad time in the Mara and hopefully this debate will spur some action to be taken to improve the situation. Do please leverage the information anyway you can.

  9. Clint Schipper says:

    HI Guys,

    Very valuable information that you are allowing to be accessed by a lot of ex and potential visitors to the Mara. As we know in this situation – money talks, Can you please add some contact information e.g.. the Mara board members contact details so that the general public can register their disgust with this issue direct, maybe this way they management will understand the funds that they will loose if something is not done sooner rather than later.

    Also, is there any talk of the Maasai capping the number of Cattle and goats per house hold???., with the increase in number in the maasai community there is always going to be more and more cattle and goats and there is only so much land. This trend is starting to occur along the eastern boundary of the Serengeti, cattle are moving in from the NCA into the Serengeti during the dry season. Allegedly, the rangers in the area are being paid off by the Maasai to look the other way as this occurs. Bottom line is, as the populations of maasai in these areas grow, their herds grow, the only thing that isn’t going to grow, is the amount of land available and wildlife is going to lose out.

  10. Blythe Smith says:

    What an absolute and preventable tragedy! Kenya needs to address the human/ lion conflict in a satisfactory way that honors the Masai and protects the animals.
    My hearfelt condolences to you and Angie. Jonathan, the Marsh pride has been well followed and well loved thanks to your careful coverage and narratives about them. BCD led me to love llions more than I ever imagined and to deeply desire visiting Kenya. After a our first magical Mara visit this past May, I couldn’t agree with you more- If I had only one day left to live, I’d want to spend it there.
    Thank you for advocating for these amazing cats- without them, the Mara will lose it’s magic!
    Kind Regards,
    Blythe Smith

  11. We are trying to leverage this incident to demand better management of the Masai Mara. It should have been anointed as a World Heritage Site years ago. The reason that has not happened is that is does not qualify given the appealing management record these past 40 years. It is a travesty and we have to speak out loud and clear on this if we care about our last wild places. We have been in contact with reporters from National Geographic who are covering the story as well as the BBC and the Guardian newspaper. Our old friend Brian Jackman is gong to be adding his voice in the Daily Telegraph too before long – of that we can be sure. It is ironic that the BBC are spending a year or more filming the Marsh Pride as part of a series called Dynasties to be aired in 2018. What a sorry story to have to tell given the latest happenings. My autobiography The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography will be published by Bradt Publishers in August 2016. We hope you enjoy reading our story and the story of the big cats that we have followed these past 40 years. We will also be publishing a large format book called Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance at the same time. Our son David is designing both books and we are terribly proud for the work he is doing. And today was a big day too as we visited our daughter Alia and Grandson Michael at their home in Nairobi. Let there be lions roaming the Mara for Michael to show to his children in times to come. Go well.

  12. kiki says:

    This is heartbreaking news, but unfortunately comes as no surprise. Each time we visit, the Mara seems to becoming more crowded with what seems to be too many new camps popping up everywhere and the incursion of the reserve by herdsmen with increasing numbers of cattle. No one grudges people trying to make a living and to be able to sustain themselves, but it seems to me that this situation cannot continue.
    There must be a solution surely! The Mara must generate a huge income from the number of tourists, so a financial agreement with the herdsmen must be possible. Even in a culture that is so unmaterialistic compared to our own, money talks.
    This may be too simplistic a view, I am no zoologist, politician or anything, just someone who has loved visiting such a beautiful place and engendering a real love and devotion to wildlife conservancy.
    My heart breaks at the thought of Bibi, a braver majestic matriarch suffering a painful horrible death in such unnatural circumstances. I am aware that often, an old lion suffers at the end of its life, but although not nice, it is nature and the circle of life. I hope Sienna is found, but hopes seem to be fading fast.
    Jonathan and Angela , you have written so beautifully and comprehensively about the situation and my heart goes out you you both and all other people whose lives have been entwined with the Marsh Pride for so many years. You must feel such devastation and impotence at what is happening.
    I pray that that the rest of the pride recover and at some point the Marsh Pride will reign supreme once more.

  13. […] Maasai Mara National Reserve. The details of the tragedy have been wonderfully documented by Jonathan Scott and National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch, but here are the basics: the lions of the Marsh […]

  14. CharlesD says:

    sad news. why theres is nothing being done i dont know. but to the government and all the irganizations concerned, if they are incapacitated to protect these areas, they should say it so solutuons are found. its humiliating for us if we are going to market Maasai Mara and when tourists come all they can see is cow dung. who needs to see that? i bet a kid wouldn’t be facinated.

  15. […] Maasai Mara National Reserve. The details of the tragedy have been wonderfully documented by Jonathan Scott and National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch, but here are the basics: the lions of the Marsh Pride, […]

  16. Thanks so much everyone for all the support – just sitting in the BBC studio in Nairobi to do a live link for BBC World News at 3.00pm UK time. Something good must surely come out of the worldwide concern shown for the Masai Mara. If we cannot protect the wild creatures inside the Mara what hope is there?

  17. SpsRs says:

    Jonathan, a question please … I definitely read that the lions wandered out of the reserve and killed cattle. Is this the truth? There has been a query on my blog post where I mentioned this. Please could you clarify whether the cattle that was killed was illegally on reserve land or the lions has wandered out? I believe I must stick to the truth to keep up the veracity of my blog. Thank you.

  18. LadyCat says:

    Hi everyone!

    Ohhh, it’s so nice to see postings on this wonderful forum….I also see some familiar ‘names’ too.

    It seems someone beat me to it, I’m heart-broken over the death of Bibi:

    My sister sent me the above link this morning cause she knows I watch Big Cat Diary. Bib survived that awful buffalo attack on BCD, only to be ‘killed’ by poison for pete’s sake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    RIP Bibi, you beautiful BIG KITTY!!!


  19. BennySS1 says:

    I think it was Sienna who was gored….Bibi was totally OK…

  20. BennySS1 says:

    Jonathon (and Angie)…I am heartbroken at this awful news! I have beautiful photos of Bibi (with the young male) just outside camp, and managed to finally see Sienna – and the other girls resting. She still had a shocking wound on her flank., but apparently healing. I look at these photos and just sob!I I was at Little Governors Camp in October with you guys and Clive’s group….VERY special time!!

    I want to start a petition……it is best to send it to the Narok governor…or someone else in Nairobi?? Any address /contact details welcome.

    Hope you travel with you on some of your other amazing adventures in the future. Thanks Sue

  21. tashbreed says:

    Jonathan and Angie – thank you for all you are doing. Your line –

    “Today it would be impossible to film Big Cat Diary in the same location – how damming a fact is that.” –

    says so much. And you are completely right. I’m glad you have a strong forum of followers who are all adding their voices to the clarion call for lions, and the Masai Mara. Did your live piece get recorded? Is there a link for it?

    I will continue to read through all your posts…


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